Tag Archives: Suzanne Pleshette

222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

“It was just too bizarre.

“Honestly, when I watched Spirited Away for the first time back in 2008, I didn’t like it for the same reason as you. I just found it too weird.”

–IMDB message board dissenters on Spirited Away

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki; , Jason Marsden, (English dub)

PLOT: While moving to a new town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour to a seemingly abandoned amusement park in rural Japan. Once the sun sets, the park transforms into an otherworldly resort for spirits and gods overseen by the cruel witch Yubaba. Now separated from her parents, Chihiro must learn to survive among an array of weird creatures as she attempts to reunite her family and return home.

Still from Spirited Away (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 1998, after completing Princess Mononoke. He came out of retirement in 2001 to make Spirited Away.
  • Disney Studios had distributed Studio Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, in the United States, with disappointing results. They put little money into marketing the film, but strong reviews and word of mouth turned it into a hit, and Disney’s partnership with Ghibli was cemented from that point on.
  • Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with 52 wins granted by other organizations).
  • Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 2001, after completing Spirited Away. He came out of retirement in 2004 to make Howl’s Moving Castle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lured into the park by a delicious scent, Chihiro’s parents come upon a vacant restaurant filled with sumptuous, exotic dishes. The two immediately begin to fill their plates, ignoring their daughter’s worries that they’ll be punished for taking the food. After the park begins its transformation, Chihiro returns to find her parents bloated and hunched over piles of scraps. She tries to warn her father about what is happening, but when he looks at her she sees only the sweating, engorged face of a pig. The grunting pig ignores Chihiro and climbs over the restaurant’s counter, only to be swatted away by an unseen figure’s reptilian arm. The pig then crashes to the ground with a primal squeal, frightening Chihiro as she cries out for her parents and runs into a street filled with tall, anonymous ghosts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pig parents; “No Face” eats; three heads and a giant baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki plays on the normal fears of lost children as the basis for an outlandish, frightening fantasy about a young girl being thrust into the incomprehensible life of an adult. The imagination of the setting is so immense that it seems to dwarf the film itself, suggesting a fully realized universe of magic and monsters with borders that extend far beyond the frame of the story.


Disney Trailer for Spirited Away

COMMENTS: Spirited Away begins with the main character, Chihiro, Continue reading 222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

CAPSULE: THE BIRDS (1963)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Hitchcock

FEATURING: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, , Veronica Cartwright

PLOT: Without explanation, birds begin attacking the quiet seaside town of Bogeda Bay, interrupting a burgeoning love affair between a socialite and a lawyer.

Still from The Birds (1963)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A great movie, but only the raw inexplicability of the avian attacks makes this Hitchcock worthy of any particular weird notice.

COMMENTS: The crow has long been an omen of death, but never have our fine feathered friends been so conspicuously thantatotic as in Alfred Hitchcock’s first true horror (as opposed to suspense) film. Hitch’s typical plotting trick—beginning with one situation, then springing a twist in the movie’s first half that makes the opening irrelevant—has never worked as well thematically as it does here. Melanie and Mitch’s coy flirtations, cultured as they may be, are rendered ridiculous midway through the film in light of the raw realities of the assault from above. And yet, by the time the first wave of pecking finches swoop through the chimney, we’re invested in the pair. The birds—natural, inexorable, and inexplicable, brooding on their makeshift roosts—are the perfect images of death, looming for all of us. Thoughts of romance may occupy the early reels, but as the story moves on, the birds’ inevitable victory over our heroes becomes clear, and the tale turns to the desperate, if doomed, fight for survival.

Incredibly, you will sometimes hear people complain that the movie is flawed because it does not explain why the birds are attacking. Providing an explanation would have turned The Birds into the silliest type of B-movie fare. How unsatisfying would it be if  it turned out the birds had gone mad from drinking water contaminated with waste from an experimental nuclear reactor? The heart of The Birds‘ horror is the incomprehensibility of the attack, which reflects the incomprehensibility of our own mortality. The inconclusiveness of the scene in the restaurant where the townsfolk debate the cause of the catastrophe is the centerpiece of the film, dramatizing the residents’ utter failure to come to grips with the situation and the futility of their plight. One citizen theorizes that, unmotivated, the birds have suddenly declared war on humanity; a scientist absurdly spends her time explaining why what is happening can’t be happening; the crazy old coot in the corner warns that it’s the end of the world. (That last guess is probably the closest to being correct, though there’s no Biblical element to the story).

One woman assumes that, because there were no bird attacks before Melanie came to town, the disaster is the interloper’s fault. Perhaps; Melanie’s reaction (slapping the woman) suggests guilt. Melanie’s arrival stirs the Freudian pot between Mitch and his widowed mother, and brings schoolteacher Annie’s buried feelings back to the surface—she’s a destabilizing sexual force. (Curious that almost all the major roles in the film go to females, with Mitch alone at the center of a web of women). Besides those psychological teases, there’s also an inevitable Cold War subtext the film. When the birds strike and the family is holed up in their homes, seeking any news of the disaster on the radio, it surely must have struck a cord with American audiences still on edge from 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. The chilling final shot of a bird-strewn pre-dawn landscape is like a post-apocalyptic world covered in feathered fallout.

Universal’s 2014 Blu-ray release is essentially the single disc version of The Birds disc from the “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” 15-disc box set. It’s packed with extra features too numerous to list here; there are actually more minutes devoted to the bonuses than to the two-hour movie itself. Hitch’s blackly ironic trailer where he “lectures” on humanity’s historical relations with his fine feathered friends is typically droll and brilliant.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Few films depict so eerily yet so meticulously the metaphysical and historical sense of a world out of joint.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker